In the evening along Chico Creek in Bidwell Park, I was picnicking before going to Camera Club, and much to my surprise a mother Wood Duck emerged from the periwinkle thickets with a family of fluffy toddlers! The drab hen with the white eye-circle hunched close to the ground and directed seven or eight fluffballs into the raging current.
Their disappearing act was probably an attempt to avoid me as much as I would have welcomed their presence. "No!" I muttered. "Not into the raging current!" It would appear that they would be swept away like thistledown on the wind, and I charged downstream to watch for their bobbling passage. Nothing. They had maneuvered into the shoreline thickets and simply vanished. They were not at all like the rubber "Lucky Duckies" released in the river at Oroville as a contest, which bobbed in the current and drifted away to the whim of the waters, totally without life and locomotion.
The Wood Duck is indeed akin to the woodlands, especially at nesting time when they seek out a crevice home in a tree or, with human help, a box. In the early 1900s the waterfowl species Aix sponsa was endangered as hunters sought out the colorful plumage, but with protection granted, a comeback was made, and today they are flourishing and have been returned to game status which means they can be shot by hunters.
It is amazing that a number of water-adapted waterfowl species nest in tree cavities, not only the Wood Duck, but goldeneyes, Buffleheads, and whistling ducks also seek out elevated real estate, often many feet above the ground. Wood Duck dens can often be found a mile from water in brood sites where the chicks climb out of elevated woody hollows after hatching to plop onto the forest floor.
Since some Wood Ducks are prone to nest locally in woodlands around marshes rather than migrate with the major flocks, it was discovered that the local populations could be encouraged to increase by providing nesting boxes to take the place of scarce tree cavities. People take joy in seeing Wood Ducks and find it desirable to keep them close.
I know Wood Duck boxes have been placed along Chico Creek where I encountered the birds, and also along the Feather River Diversion Pool. I found one attached to an oak beside Glen Pond directly above my fishing spot! Others have been placed around the Afterbay Outlet Swamp in the cottonwood grove where egrets nest in the spring time - outreach box programs of the California State Gray Lodge Wildlife Area at Gridley, California. Sportsman-slanted Gray Lodge does more for wildlife than merely manage ducks for hunters!
The Gray Lodge Wood Duck program maintains over 300 boxes attended by a group of volunteers and coordinated by Refuge Naturalist Debbie Peterson and volunteer Mike Hubbartt, and in l998 reported a total of 3,996 ducklings hatched from 369 boxes. A percentage of those successful hatches were taken by predators, and various other mishaps reduced the output, but nevertheless an impressive surge to the population occurred. The bird expansion merges into the wildlife matrix and there is no dramatic abundance for observation when you go to the "Wildlife Watching" site since the attractive birds are shy.
Attending to the needs of Wood Ducks and maintaining nesting boxes has reached a great popularity, verified by an all-day Wood Duck Nest Box Program Field Day held May 22, at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Wood Duck fanciers gathered from all over the state to attend various programs designed to streamline nest box efforts even to the tune of "Computerizing Your Program." The California Waterfowl Association is involved in increasing Wood Ducks also, and they have an office at Gray Lodge.
There is a need to exchange information since there are some problems in presenting boxes to not only the ducks but a variety of other wild things that want to move in. Not only do the box checkers find Wood Ducks, including a "dump" disaster situation when other Wood Ducks lay eggs on the same pile sometimes to an unmanageable depth of 40 or more eggs, but dark-hole lovers like opossums, ringtails, small owls, and even bees try to establish occupancy!
Audubon magazine, May issue, l999, had an article about the dumping, a detrimental activity that was evidently excelerated when Wood Duck boxes were placed on exposed poles over marsh waters. The high visibility encouraged egg laying by multiple hens, but placing the boxes in natural wooded areas achieves greater success. Dumping, sort of a lazy responsibility, occurs in several species, including the notorious cowbird habit of laying eggs in small songbird nests.
I was at Gray Lodge one spring and was invited by Mike Hubbartt to join a box check. Not only is some clever carpentry work involved in creating the boxes, but the placement and checking is a considerable task. At Gray Lodge, pickup trucks used for the job roll down the maze of dusty refuge roads to run a "check line" sectioned off into individual units. The ladder is a vital tool, and often you lug that unwieldy instrument through brush and blackberry to reach some of the selected sites on suitable trees. Climbing up ten or twelve feet , unwrapping the lid, and peeking inside is an unpredictable moment when some unknown animal may explode out of confinement.
On that particular day, a screech owl was nestled into a box, clinging on the bottom in spite of the outside disruption. Another box had evidence of an opossum, and another had some old honey comb from a bee invasion. It is vital that records be kept and boxes checked in order to promote Wood Duck success.
How many are enough? That question has emerged in several wildlife management programs. When waterfowl numbers were low, especially Snow Geese, conservation efforts helped reestablish their numbers, and now populations have expanded to the point that botulism and other diseases take a toll when conditions are crowded. Thousands of Snow Geese and other waterfowl died of disease in the refuges last year, and on top of that, it was shocking to hear a plea for more to be shot on the northbound passage because too many Snow Geese were destroying the Arctic tundra!
There have been some extensive bird-banding programs in the past to gather information aimed at better management and understanding. Thousands of band reports are filed away, often at a great output of volunteer effort, and not always without considerable trauma for the birds, and it would seem that those projects have reached a peak. Who decides when enough is enough? Who decides when too many Canada Geese infiltrate the city? Are there too many cormorants wiping out fish populations?
Often the overriding reason of various projects is the gesture to show that we care about the welfare of wild animals. Providing a place for species on Planet Earth is of utmost importance, and Wood Duck salvation reflects that attitude. Long live the Wood Duck!
© 1999 Rex Burress
May l6, l999